When I was just a kid back in the early 60s, I lived in the Crenshaw
District of Los Angeles (This area is now mistakenly referred to as
South Central; it never was known as such back then. South Central was
an area with much different boundaries and there was a huge distinction,
but that's another story). One of my Crenshaw neighbors was Mr. Ray
Charles himself. He lived around the corner from me and my family. It
was common knowledge that he lived in the 'hood and the 'hood was proud
of it. Why not? The man was in his glorious primein the midst
of that string of hits that included "Hit the Road, Jack," "Born to
Lose," "I Can't Stop Loving You."
No one in the neighborhood really cared that much about Elvis. It was
Ray who was Royalty. He defined the very idea of Kingship. And before
anyone reading this jumps to the wrong conclusion, the 'hood was a very
normal, middle-class domain where you didn't even think about parking
your car on the lawn! No one here was rich, however; far from it. Folks
here worked hard and suffered through the dynamics of "integration"
to own their piece of MLK's dream in the days preceding the marches
Though no one could dispute his undeniable genius, Ray Charles was a
freak. That's what I said, bucko... a freak in the proudest way possible.
I was just a kid, mind you, and as much as I admired his music, what
I really cared about was his kids who were the same age as I wasabout
ten or eleven. We rode bikes, pretended war, threw rocks at girls, came
home dirty and smelly. We took turns playing on each other's front lawns.
One bright, sunny day when I was either wrestling or being wrestled
on the Charles' lawn, the afternoon air was split by the high-revving
sound of a small engine that seemed to be somewhere behind the house.
No big deal, but the sound would gun and abate, gun and abate until
it finally advanced down the driveway growing louder, louder, and appeared
past the front porch. A Vespa, two-wheeled contraption, noisy, being
piloted by a familiar looking man wearing familiar looking sunglasses
and an even more familiar smile that stretched from ear to ear.
No, I thought, that's not who it looks like.
It can't be.
Uh uh, no way.
I stopped whatever game we were playing and just watched. After all,
I wasn't wearing sunglasses and I wasn't smiling. At that point in my
life I had perfect 20/20 vision which was good enough to notice that
he was wearing grey shorts, black socks, black leather loafers, a casual
sport shirt whose color I don't remember, and there was a little kid
about five years younger than me wearing jeans, striped t-shirt, black
sneakers, an excited smile, his small arms tightly around the familiar
looking man's neck. Together they rode the noisy Vespa down the length
of the driveway, past the sidewalk and into the street. Executing a
perfect 90-degree turn the man aimed the machine straight down the car-lined
avenue, revved the engine and shifted gears the length of the long block.
In the distance I heard the scooter slow and smoothly shift down. The
noisy machine then accelerated and returned getting louder and louder
on a perfect trajectory til it slowed into another confident 90-degree
turn that brought it and its smiling, human cargo back up the driveway
to noisily disappear behind the house. The engine shut off and after
a few seconds of silence me and the kids resumed our play and then I
I never met these kids' dad and this was the only time I ever saw him
in the flesh. And, of course, to this day there are many people who
don't believe a word of any of this. Well, it is everyone's inherent
right to not believe what they do not see. Years later I did meet some
of Ray's sidemen, musicians who weaved crazy tales of their band leader
driving the tour bus through downtown Manhattan at rush hour, or talking
the pilot of his chartered plane into letting him sit at the controls
and land it, or grabbing a young woman by the wrist and then proceeding
to describe what she looked like.
Freaky tales like this abound as do reactions of disbelievers who say
no way... uh uh... you're lying. Lotsa folks claimed that Ray was only
partially blind, that he was a fake, a put on. Perhaps the most telling
tale is the one where, after he lost his sight as a young child, his
mother told him: "Ray, you may be blind but you're not stupid." Believe
what you will, but I think he believed what she said. I've met many
people who only believe what they see on television or in the movies,
or will only believe something when everyone else decides that it's
I've never doubted for a minute that Ray Charles is an uncommon genius.
One of my all-time favorite songs of his is titled "You Don't Know Me"
and it is a masterpiece of understatement. I've listened to the man's
voice and I've never had a problem understanding or believing anything
he sang. Even a blind man can enjoy his new sunglasses. I know what
I saw that day playing in his front yard with his kids whose names I
no longer remember. But when I remember the huge smile on that familiar
looking face as he pointed the noisy Vespa into the street I close my
eyes and wonder how much more he saw.
©1997, 2012 SPOT/No Auditions
Thoughts on Record Collecting
Blinded by the Flight
Tale of the White Snake
"Our Oars Became Wings"